My grandfather was trailblazing trade representative for the New Zealand Dairy Board. He came home with many stories and one of them was this: he remembers crossing the border from China to Russia and it feeling like home. This was remarkable to him because it emphasised how strange China was and, because in the 1960s and 1970s, with the iron curtain still firmly drawn, Russia wasn’t supposed to feel like home. It was supposed to feel like a whole other world.
Fast-forward fifty years. When we left China for Russian-speaking Kazakhstan it also felt like a homecoming. There are few places that feel less like home than rural China. But whereas my grandfather had a clear idea of the Soviet states, as being distinct and being different, we just didn’t know what to think. Our stereotypes had probably still been packaged up by Bond and Borat movies, but really, we had no idea.
It’s still hard to generalise. Almaty was a cosmopolitan city with skyscrapers and ski resorts. Bishkek, Krygyzstan’s capital, felt like a medium sized New Zealand provincial city – Gisborne maybe. The best thing it had to put on postcards was a slightly quirky clock tower surrounded by manicured gardens. Everything in between the cities has been barren country and the occasional yurt.
The native people here look a little Mongolian. Its like their genes are saying “Chinghis Khan was here”. They live in yurts and are highly dependent on horses. Many are still nomadic. In the cities there is also a large Russian population. But our kind of European features still stand out enough for little kids to stare.
Russian language, and a shared modern history, binds the states of Central Asia together (some nasty border disputes notwithstanding). There is a Russian-speaking world with a population analogous to the US. It’s relatively easy for its citizens to travel between and work within neighbouring countries.
We’ve said some places (Colombia and China) are under traveled. We can’t say the same of Kazakhstan and Krygyzstan. Not because it isn’t fascinating, but because the travel infrastructure isn’t up to much. We would have really struggled to get to grips to Almaty without a host. Krygyzstan is the only country we’ve ever been to where there really aren’t buses, not even between big cities. Its restaurants all sell the same things – noodles, plov and shashlick – but only display them on Cyrillic menus. It’s tough going. Coming here was a bit unintended on our part. We had friends to visit in Kazakhstan and Krygyzstan then made geographic sense.
What we can say of Central Asia is that it is under understood. We’d like to come back to improve our own understanding one day. Although I will always be sad that we can no longer visit Turkmentistan in the month its dictator renamed for his mother. They’ve gone back to calling it April instead.